WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. – Among players and coaches, the consensus was clear.
After the Gophers basketball team stepped out of the locker room and headed toward the bus shortly after getting blown out 89-73 by Purdue, a team that almost surely will not make the NCAA tournament, they all knew the reason.
“We didn’t match their intensity,” sophomore guard Andre Hollins said. “We were right there — we cut it to 10 and we didn’t grasp it, so that was it.”
The Gophers, who began the season with such high expectations, have been baffling to watch. After a midseason slide in the conference and now two consecutive “bad” losses to finish the year, the Gophers wound up with the No. 9 seed in the Big Ten tournament and at least damaged their NCAA positioning, even if their strong RPI (still 24 as of Sunday afternoon) likely means they will not miss the tourney altogether.
Illinois’ 68-55 loss at Ohio State on Sunday determined that the Illini will be the Gophers’ first-round matchup in the Big Ten tournament at 11 a.m. Thursday in Chicago, perhaps the best-case scenario for hot-and-cold Minnesota. The Gophers lost their last game against Illinois — at home — but beat the Illini in Champaign for their only road win in the Big Ten schedule. The Illini don’t have the same inside presence that Purdue used to harass the Gophers on Saturday, but they are capable outside shooters and can be dangerous when they get hot from three-point range.
Considering their inconsistent track record this season — beating then-No. 1 Indiana and losing to lowly Nebraska the next week — it’s almost impossible to predict how the Gophers could perform on a given day. But even if the Gophers lost to Illinois, it wouldn’t be a “bad” loss in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee because Illinois has a strong RPI (40).
The Gophers have certainly given the selection committee a finishing stretch, anyway, that will likely furrow some brows when discussing Minnesota’s stance in the NCAA tournament. The Gophers probably need a decent showing in the Big Ten tournament in order to enter the Big Dance with anything but a double-digit seed.
“Anything can happen,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. “It’s not up to me. We’ve just got to do what we can and get ready for the Big Ten tournament.”
One harbinger of hope for the Gophers is Smith’s success in his tenure at Minnesota when it comes to neutral-court situations, where some of the team’s signature victories have come.
This season, the Gophers beat then-No. 19 Memphis and Stanford in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
And the Gophers have won at least one game in the Big Ten tournament in all but one year Smith has coached at Minnesota. Last season, the Gopher won only one game (against Northwestern), but then challenged a talented Michigan team before falling 73-69. In 2009-10, the Gophers plowed all the way to the conference title game before losing to Ohio State 90-61.
If the Gophers can pick up the intensity for good in the conference tournament, they have a chance to quickly put their past two losses in the rearview mirror.
“You never go into a season thinking that you’re going to be on the bottom half of your conference,” senior forward Rodney Williams said. “Especially with the team that we had — I mean we had expectations coming into the year. But the ball doesn’t always bounce your way. The Big Ten tournament is a whole new season, we can go out there and make a name for ourselves and make some noise in that.”